On Nov. 7, 2002, Dakota people marched from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling, site of a concentration camp in which Dakota people suffered from exposure and hostile attacks by angry white Minnesotans in the frosty winter months of 1862-63.
At each mile marker along the 150-mile trek, Dakota people placed memorial stakes to commemorate ancestors who died along that forced march.
To Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, the Dakota people were “physically reclaiming our memory, our history and our land.”
This moment, as well as many other commemorative efforts, constitute a movement of decolonization to challenge misconceptions and troubled interpretations forced upon the Dakota. Through this decolonization, the Minnesota homeland defined the Dakota place, where healing could begin.
Mni Sota Makoce, the land of cloud-tinted waters, was a land in which Dakota originated, ancestors thrived and the truth of the Dakota War lives.
Understanding the memory of the U.S.-Dakota War is a fraught process. For decades, the overarching theme of white victimhood and American innocence dominated the contested history. These histories portrayed white Minnesotans as the “defenders” of the American West, honoring their sacrifice in righteously defeating those who stood in their way. Similar to the Confederate Lost Cause, the legacy of settler colonialism threatened the very existence of Dakota indigeneity throughout the region.
Not just in Minnesota did this happen. We see similar threads in Ari Kelman’s “A Misplaced Massacre,” a story of commemorative struggles over the Sand Creek Massacre; Boyd Cothran’s “Remembering the Modoc War,” a book that traces the contested memory of the Modocs in the late 19th Century; or, David Grua’s fantastic work “Surviving Wounded Knee,” which examines the innocent American vs. treacherous Native American binary.
White victimhood fits neatly at the crux of the contested Dakota War. Citizens who dwell throughout the Minnesota River Valley not only glorify the deeds of their heroic ancestors, but also belittle the experience of native people in the region.
Using the lens of white victimhood, readers should consider Curtis Dahlin’s “U.S.-Dakota exhibit has some things wrong” (Dec. 3), which attempts to discredit Dakota experience and the Minnesota Historical Society. The piece weaves together generic phrases often heard within white communities. Dahlin’s essay alludes to familiarity “with the U.S.-Dakota War but not with later aspects of incarceration,” and Dahlin focuses profusely on the “time of the war.”
His approach, however, does not connect with the story of incarceration, displacement and eradication of Dakota people after 1862. His analysis neglects the suffering of exile from western Minnesota to Fort Snelling; to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa; to the Crow Creek reservation; and the punitive expeditions by Henry Sibley and Alfred Sully in 1863 and 1864 throughout Dakota Territory.
Through these traumatic experiences for the Dakota people, Waziyatawin alludes to moments of complete retribution by the white population to the Dakota. During the long march from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling, and as the group marched through the streets of New Ulm, white citizens began belittling the Dakota. But more seriously, settlers threw rocks, spit, ripped babies out of their mothers’ arms and even poured hot, scalding water over the prisoners. We must not forget the trauma and anguish that the Dakota people faced after surrendering and facing prosecution by the federal government.
When studying the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, we need to bring more sympathy and acknowledge the wrongs that white America has inflicted on the Dakota people. Similar to the Lost Cause, a racial caste system is formulated to belittle the native experience throughout the state of Minnesota. Monuments dot the Minnesota River Valley, glorifying a white cause defeating the Dakota people and distorting how people think about and visualize the Dakota War. Monuments dedicated to white victimhood, such as the Defenders’ Monument in New Ulm, which glorifies the guardians of the American West, force physical, painful reminders on the Dakota people.
The public memory embodies not only the physical reminders on the landscape, but also the ways in which modern residents choose to remember that contested history.
As in 2002, Dakotas have annually commemorated the legacies of the U.S.-Dakota War. Most notably, two annual events highlight the efforts to bring healing back to the land which caused so much torment. The 38 + 2 Commemorative Ride follows the path from the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota to Reconciliation Park, the site of the largest mass execution in United States history. Nearing the anniversary of the execution on Dec. 26, Dakota members, on horseback, travel over 300 miles to bring healing to this place of death. On the Scroll Monument, trinkets and memorial objects are tied to its banisters, only to be replaced by the following years’ travelers.
The Mahkato Wacipi, an event hosted in the Land of Memories Park in Mankato, is the second event that brings peace and healing to the Dakota people.
These events show the power of memory. The Dakota transform the once-bloodied landscape into a site of power and remembrance.
Continued misunderstandings about Dakota War history mean historical accuracy is lost and pain still forced on the indigenous population. Dakota War memory no longer lingers on the peripheries of white victimhood; the narrative resonates through the efforts of highlighting Dakota perspective. The memory lingers through the connection to a place. To the Dakota, that place is Minnesota.
John R. Legg is a graduate student at Virginia Tech, studying the public memory of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.(On twitter @thejohnlegg).